Paul Cann: A disgrace still beyond government's wit

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The Independent Online

As leader of the Opposition in 1996, Tony Blair said of mixed-sex wards: "Is it beyond the wit of the Government and the health administrators to deal with that problem?" After nine years, sadly, it still seems that the answer is yes.

The Government has made promise after broken promise about the phasing out of mixed-sex wards. Yet, nine years on, the Patients Association is reporting an increase in calls from older people and worried relatives with tales of outrage and confusion about being placed on a mixed-sex ward. They are angry, and rightly so.

My own mother was faced with the indignity of a bed on a mixed-sex ward in 1990. Suffering heart failure, she was placed in a bed opposite a man with dementia and uncontrollable behaviour. Help the Aged launched "Dignity on the Ward" to stop this kind of thing. Sadly, it still seems a common occurrence on NHS hospital wards.

Older people shouldn't be burdened with the worry and humiliation of undressing or bathing on a mixed-sex ward.

The Government's definition of "single" sex wards is incredibly narrow. A single sex ward is not achieved simply by using a curtain as a partition.

Last week, the Government proudly launched its own "Dignity in Care" campaign. Help the Aged has shown great support for the Department for Health's new initiative to promote dignity. It is an important campaign, which has long been called for. But it will be empty if it doesn't stop the nightmare experience of sick people being made to feel even worse, like parcels being passed around.

Dignity must not be a rhetorical slogan. It's about how you are spoken to, about having the window open to hear the birds in your last hours, about what you eat and how you get help to eat. It's about being treated as a whole human being, not a set of clinical challenges. It's about your humanity.

For those at the end of their lives, the need for that extra dignity and respect has never been greater.

How we help people to die, in comfort, companionship and serenity, is the ultimate test of our decency. Not shunting people on to a ward, where their most private functions are the least private they've ever been.

The writer is director of policy and research at Help the Aged